ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Raqqa, the former de facto capital of the Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate, was once known for beheadings, markets of Yezidi (Ezidi) sex slaves, and the forced covering of women. But now, a local administration is trying to bring women's rights to this Syrian city once ruled by jihadists.
The US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated Raqqa in October and, since then, the Raqqa Civil Council (RCC) has been put in charge of the city. Among its responsibilities are to clear out tons of rubble and attempt to provide electricity and water, among other things.
The RCC, now co-headed by a female, is focused on bringing more than just municipal services to its people. One recent example is an effort spearheaded by its Women’s Bureau, the Aug. 11 opening of a local Women's Council in the neighborhood of Bedo, the third so far in the city.
Shams Raqqa, a 20 year-old member of the new council, joined with an ambition to train future generations of females about women rights.
To say this was not possible under IS occupation is about as much of an understatement as one could make. Dozens of strict and often cruel regulations imposed by the group had to be constantly observed. Most obvious among those pertaining to women was that they were forced to cover themselves with a full-length veil.
“The people of Raqqa were not wearing these before," the young council member told Kurdistan 24. "They were wearing the normal headscarf. After Daesh [IS] came, they at first tried peacefully to convince the women, men, and sheikhs. But, step by step, they started to behead people and cut hands off to enforce their rules."
“There is one scholar who said, ‘I have seen Islam, but no Muslims.’ The Islamic law loves brotherhood, the people, and justice, but Daesh was not the right way,” she continued. “Forcing women to wear Niqab [full veil]; this is not Islam."
Fayrouz Xelil Mohammed, a member of the RCC Women's Affairs Bureau says that women were not represented under Syrian government rule, either.
“In this place, there was a Women's Union under the Syrian government, but it was not active. But in the past, nothing was done for women, but we will do anything to achieve rights for them.”
Under IS rule, families often forced their daughters to marry IS fighters in order to protect themselves. She said she knew of 30 to 40 such cases.
“We try to solve this problem in cooperation with the court, and the religious committee."
She gave the example of a family who coerced their daughter into marrying a jihadist from Algeria who was later killed.
“Now we try to convince the parents to accept the woman and her two children. Otherwise, we go to court. They forced their daughter to marry this man,” she said. “They [the women and her children] have nothing to do with IS."
After Raqqa's liberation, she explained, many females joined the Women's Councils. “We promised them we would end Daesh and improve their rights."
However, after four years of extremist ideology permeating every facet of life, she fears it might be difficult to change the mentality of residents. Even before IS marched into Raqqa, conservative tribes played a major role in the local culture.
That’s why the RCC, as well as administrations in other Kurdish areas of Syria (Rojava), say they are attempting to carefully, but as quickly as possible, pass laws that ban polygamy, underage marriage, and enforce women rights in general.
“We have no such laws yet. We have just started and we need to gain the trust of women to lead them to an understanding of these laws," she explained. "As soon as women learn and get comfortable with the idea, they—themselves—will not allow things like polygamy. They will reject concepts like underage marriage. After that, we can implement these rules.”
A local tribal leader named Talal Haji Bilal Sibat justified the continuation of traditional customs like polygamy in part by saying it would be difficult to convince the tribes of Raqqa to stop participating in them.
“By agreement and discussions, we can maybe find a solution when people want to be married twice, but there should be a reason why,” he said.
“There are some basic traditions that are impossible to undermine, like polygamy. There are a lot of factors behind it," he suggested. "Otherwise no one would get married twice or for a third time, for no reason."
Shams, the young local Women's Council member in Bedo, says that the role of Raqqa tribes, however, is not as strong as it once was.
“It’s the turn of young people now and a new generation. We respect them, but they cannot force their opinions on us. We need to make our own decision.”
Editing by John J. Catherine